+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

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Suddenly, half a year

Or, time to exercise

Well, hello again. Apparently, it’s summer.

Regularly, I do get urges to come back to the Admin Interface and write a bit more prose-doodling for this website. There are so many other things to do that keep me occupied, though. Now it’s summertime, the garden at Symbolic Towers is lush and green, and instead of getting on with things indoors you can regularly find me outside, hiding behind the Bee House,* pottering around the garden, deadheading the marigolds and worrying about the effect of leafhoppers on the potato harvest. As the gardens at Symbolic Towers are barely the size of a damselfly’s bandana, though, I am usually easy to spot.

Checking back, I’ve just realised that the entries on the main page still include things I wrote over a year ago now – for example, you can still see the ice monster we defeated when we moved house, down below this one. It’s not very good performance, for a blog that was originally started with the aim of posting every weekday. There are, however, more things in my head that I do plan to write about, some time over the next few months. Maybe I’ll actually manage them at some point. If nothing else, I should start posting pictures of the verdant garden, before it stops being verdant and crumbles back into autumn mulch. The pea plants are already starting to look a bit mildewed.

Lots has been in the news in the past few months about exams: about exam boards getting the questions wrong, about teenagers staring down baffled at unanswerable questions, and then about kids and parents complaining that they don’t want to be marked down for the question-setters’ mistakes. I have to say, my first thought was: surely, this is a learning experience? One of the first tips I was taught at school was: exam questions, numerically-based ones, are usually carefully worked out so that you’ll get nice neat answers at the end. The real world, of course, doesn’t work like that. When you’ve left school, you’ll find out that real world questions don’t have nice neat answers, and that often people will ask you things that are unanswerable, or insoluble with the information you have. Discovering that fact in the middle of an exam is probably a very good place to learn it. Possibly, this is why I should never become a teacher.

For now, that will do for a blog post. I will come back and try to write more in a few days; get my writing muscles unstiffened and flexible again. Because, as anybody who’s ever tried it knows, the more you write the more you want to write.

* Not one of those big boxes you use to house domesticated, sociable bees in the hope you can steal their honey, but a boarding-house for antisocial solitary bees. None have, as yet, taken up residence, but neverless I always check.

With Difficulty

In which we muse on how hard it is to write something with all the distractions the modern world has to offer

There’s one big problem with computers and pervasive connectivity. The problem is: it’s all at your fingertips. Which means, when you sit down to do some work, it’s all too easy to realise that there are other things you’d rather be doing; and there are a lot that can be done there and then.

In a lot of cases that’s straightforward to solve: disconnect yourself. It’s a bit trickier, though, when it comes to writing blog posts. Particularly, the sort of blog posts that need fact-checking, more information, and so on. Once you have to start doing that, you start getting sidetracked down a line of “research” which is very interesting and distracting, but doesn’t really help you with getting your blog post written. The inspiration fades away amid a mass of non-information.

What I’m going to have to do, I think, in order to get this process going properly again, is to make more notes. Get a notebook, and find a place far away from the internet. Hide my phone. Lie back in bed, maybe, and write my posts with pen and paper first. And after that, put all the links in and do the fact-checking, after the text is already down. It all goes back to something I wrote a long time back, wondering if having a Blog Editor would improve the quality of this blog. An independent Blog Editor is highly unlikely to appear, so I have to fulfil both roles myself; but if I do try to explicitly divide writing time and editing time, then maybe much more will get done.

Strange Loop

In which things get into a circular reference

Things go around in circles. This site has been quiet for a while in the past, more than once, and it will probably happen again in the future at some point. I can’t tell when, but it will probably happen.

Still, a new year is as good a time for a new start as any, even though I try not to believe in arbitrary starting-points. It’s hard to avoid it at this time of year, though: forced to stay away from work, expected to visit the family, exchange gifts, rest for a week and recover ready for the new year’s start. I’ve been staying in and reading one of the books I received for Christmas: Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. It’s a long book, a complex book, and I haven’t finished it yet: but its essence is in loops, looping, and self-referentiality. How self-referentiality is necessary, as a minimum, before self-awareness can occur. It seems like an ideal thing to talk about on a blog which has always been highly aware that it’s a blog, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken in enough of the book to write about it yet. “It’s got a lot of equations in it,” said The Mother, giving it to me. It does have, true; it also has some truly awful puns, intertwined and nested ideas, and dialogues between fictional and/or appropriated characters who butt into the discussion on a regular basis.

Funnily enough, a letter came the other day from regular reader E. Shrdlu of Clacton-on-Sea…

The Plain People Of The Internet: Hurrah! We were wondering when that chap would pop up again. We were worried he’d got stuck putting shapes into boxes, or analysing what kind of linoleum he has in his kitchen.

Hush, you. As I was saying, a letter came, from semi-regular reader E. Shrdlu of Clacton-on-Sea:

“Gödel, Escher, Bach” is quite a work to try to emulate, isn’t it? Maybe you should try something simpler. Never mind the parallels between human consciousness, a baroque composer and a 20th-century artist: have you thought about the links between something simpler, like TV ghost stories and the British railway preservation movement? Or maybe: the parallels between the work of Robert Graves and books like “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”. Something nice and straightforward like that.

It’s an interesting idea there. Maybe I should indeed be starting off along those lines. Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be writing a critique of a piece of writing I read for the first time a few days ago. It starts like this:

Things go around in circles. This site has been quiet for a while in the past, more than once, and it will probably happen again in the future at some point. I can’t tell when, but it will probably happen.

Still, a new year is as good a time for a new start as any, even though I try not to believe in arbitrary starting-points…

Somehow, I think I might be onto something.

Recent Search Requests

In which we know what you’re looking for

From the past month or so:

1/64 scale castle. 1/64 scale is also known as “S Gauge” in the model train world. I have some photos of an S gauge model train on here; no castles, though.
addicted to prostitutes grimsby. I’ve seen what Grimsby prostitutes are like generally, and, well, grim is the word.
describe a seaside town in winter. “Grey” would be a good start, usually.
did horne and corden write there new sketch show?. If they didn’t, they should consider asking for a discount next time.
evening post crash bedminster. The junction of Winterstoke Road and Bedminster Down Road is still covered in flowers and mementos, after a woman died when a car crashed into a stone wall there late one night recently. I should pop down and take photos of it all before it rots away.
finding a deat bat meaning and symbolism. Well, I know what to do when you find a dead bat on your doorstep, if you’re British at least. Its meaning: erm, the cat managed to kill a bat, I think. As for symbolism, I’m at a bit of a loss.
mark bradshaw replacement bedminster surely has to be a bit of wishful thinking, because it’s a couple of years until Bradshaw (one of Bedminster’s city councillors) is up for re-election. He’s recently been tipped as an ideal Bristol Labour leader, although his pet projects have a reputation for releasing misleading press releases.
men diamler did a very good performance and DJ set at The Cube on New Years Eve, despite being (by his own admission) the most alcohol-infused act of the evening, as I mentioned at the time. Still, as I said: rather good.
naked forestmen. That’s enough Recent Search Requests, I think.

Taking notes

In which we list other things I am working on

Incidentally, one reason I’ve been missing the target of posting here every day recently is that I have been non-blogging about something else. Non-blogging, in the sense of a private diary; but about a specific topic, rather than vague everyday-life ramblings. In a few months, it will hopefully get published, either here or on paper; but I can’t say anything until at least the summer, and hopefully longer. But if you’re writing something like a diary, it’s best to do it as the events occur, while they’re still fresh in your mind; and it’s been soaking up the spare words in my head.

Last week I mentioned that we felt inspired to finish off our current artcraft projects. It got me thinking just how many creative projects I’m working on at the moment, that are at least vaguely concrete but haven’t been finished. There is:

  • A crochet bomb
  • A binary scarf
  • Two model railway wagons
  • A website that, as yet, is secret
  • The aforementioned diary-blog-zine-thing that is also currently secret
  • Something vague for the London Zine Symposium, heading towards us more rapidly than I care to think
  • K’s sister’s wedding album, which we definitely should have done more of by now

That’s 7 or 8 things, depending on how you count. Plus there are many other ideas which haven’t yet made it outside my head, and vague concepts such as “a photographic portfolio on the theme of disused hotels,” or “a model railway incorporating the Ostrich pub”. Really, though, I should complete some of the started-projects before embarking on anything else.

Photo post of the week

In which we spot a derelict hotel

It took me until yesterday to realise that there was another bug with the new theme, that nobody had so far noticed. Which isn’t too surprising: it didn’t affect any functionality, and it was only a problem on some days of the week. It’s fixed now, at least.

This week, there aren’t many photos; or, at least, not many cheerful ones. It’s all Bristol in dull January weather. Particularly: photos of the Grosvenor Hotel, the disused hotel, alongside a disused railway embankment, on Temple Gate. It’s due to be knocked down; so here are some photos.

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

The disused Grosvenor Hotel

Well, it was due to be knocked down, to make way for a road scheme and a bus stop, before the City Council’s cabinet resigned the other week. What will happen to it now, I don’t know.

The size of things

In which we measure monitors

The redesign is now almost done, which means that soon you’ll be saved from more posts on the minutiae of my redesign. It’s got me thinking, though: to what extent do I need to think about readers’ technology?

When this blog first started, I didn’t really worry about making it accessible to all,* or about making sure that the display was resolution-independent. It worked for me, which was enough. Over time, screens have become bigger; and, more importantly, more configurable, so I’ve worried less and less about it. When it came to do a redesign, though, I started to wonder. What browsers do my readers actually used.

Just after Christmas, for entirely different reasons, I signed up for Google Analytics, rather than do my own statistics-counting as I had been doing. Because Google Analytics relies on JavaScript to do its dirty work, it gives me rather more information about such things than the old log-based system did. So, last week, I spent an hour or so with my Analytics results and a spreadsheet. Here’s the graph I came up with:

Browser horizontal resolutions, cumulative %

The X-axis there is the horizontal width of everyone’s screens, in order but not to scale; the Y-axis is the cumulative percentage of visits.** In other words, the percentage figure for a given width tells you the proportion of visits from people whose screen was that size, or wider.

Straight away, really, I got the answer I wanted. 93% of visits are to this site are from people whose screens are 1024 pixels wide, or more. It’s 95% if I take out the phone-based browsers at the very low end, because I suspect most of that is accounted for by K reading it on the bus on her way home from work. The next step up, though, the graph plunges to only 2/3 of visits. 1024 pixels is the smallest screen width that my visitors use heavily.

Admittedly there’s a bit of self-selection in there, based on the current design; it looks horrible at 800 pixels, and nearly everyone still using an 800×600 screen has only visited once in the two-month sample period. However, that applies to most of the people who visit this site in any case; just more so for the 800-pixel users. Something like 70% of visits are from people who have probably only visited once in the past couple of months; so it’s fair to assume that my results aren’t too heavily skewed by the usability of the current design. It will be interesting to see how much things change.

I’m testing the new design in the still-popular 1024×768 resolution, to make sure everything will still work. I’ll probably test it out a fair bit on K’s phone, too. But, this is a personal site. If you don’t read it, it’s not vital, to you or to me. If I don’t test it on 800×600 browsers, the world won’t end. The statistics, though, have shown me where exactly a cutoff point might be worthwhile.

* For example, in the code of the old design, all that sidebar stuff over on the right comes in the code before this bit with the content, which does (I assume) make it a bit of a bugger for blind readers. That, at least, will be sorted out in the new design.

** “visits” is of course a bit of a nebulous term, but that is a rant for another day.

Classification

In which we discuss tagging and filksonomies

Another design point that’s come up as part of the Grand Redesign I keep promising you: tagging. The little bundle of links at the bottom of each post that I didn’t really think did very much.

I was a latecomer to tagging. When this site first started, it didn’t have any for the first month or so. After a while I started adding them, pointing them to Technorati. Back then, the site was running on WordPress version 1.5.something, and it didn’t have any built-in tagging support. I was trying to avoid using too many WordPress plugins, and I didn’t think that tag management (as distinct from tagging per se) mattered all that much; so I wrote all the tags manually. Like this, at the end of each post, with the <a> element repeated for each tag:

<small>Keyword noise: <a class="tag" rel="tag" href="…">tag1</a>, …</small>

Which worked, quite well; there was a visually distinct “tag” class, because I wanted tag links – which all led to Technorati back then – to be visually distinct from regular links which would go to whatever they were about.

Things move on, though, and WordPress has since gained built-in tagging functionality. Given that I’m redesigning the whole site, and putting in new built-from-scratch layout templates, I thought I may as well switch to using a more organising tagging system. For one thing, it means less typing each time I write a post. All that code up above is replaced by one little chunk in the template:

<p id="thetags"><small><?php the_tags('Keyword noise: ', ', ' ,");?></small></p>

This one covers all the tags, calling a Wordpress API function to pull them out of the database and convert them into HTML. I know all those commas and quotes look a bit confusing; but really they’re not that bad. And the point is: this is in the template, not in each post. That bit of code there only has to be written once; the previous chunk had to be typed out every time. The most awkward part is that WordPress isn’t flexible enough to let you set the class of each link individually, hence the <p class="…"> at the start.

The big change this leads to, though, is that the tag links no longer point to Technorati. Now, they point back to the site itself: tag page requests generate a page containing every post marked with that tag. And, already, that’s shown that people do indeed click on the tags. People, particularly people coming from searches, do seem to use them. Whether they find them useful or not is another matter, of course, now that they point back within the site and not to a broader variety of opinions on the matter; but they do get used.

Doing it this way means that I put more tags on each post, simply because there’s much less typing to do. Conversion, though, is going to be a bit of a job. Right now there are 760-odd posts on this site, all of which I’m having to reread and re-tag. It’s going to take a while, but hopefully the majority of it will be done by the time the new design is finished.* The only problem with this transitional phase is that: the current template is, because of its age, completely unaware of tags. So it doesn’t really know what a tag-based archive page is; so when you click on a tag, there’s no explanation as to what you’re looking at. I’m not sure if this is going to be a problem for you readers or not; and, hopefully, it’s only going to be a short-lived situation.

The word “folksonomy” has often been used to describe this sort of tagging system. I’m not sure it’s an ideal term for what I’m doing, though. “Filksonomy” might be more relevant: a bit like a folksonomy, but rather more whimsical and silly.

*** In any case, there are plenty of other parts of the new design that also need each post checking and potentially editing.

Reading list

In which we discuss books and the French Revolution

One thing about yesterday’s post: it gives you a good look at the state of one of our bookshelves. Not a good enough look to make out what most of the books are, though, unless they’re books with distinctive spines that you’re already familiar with – like Peter Ackroyds’s London, for example.

Over on top of that pile on the left, though, is a book I mentioned here a few months ago. Shortly after restarting the regular blogging cycle, I mused aloud as to whether I should restart the Books I Haven’t Read reviews, and predicted one book that might fall victim: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. It’s there on top of the pile, in the blue cover. And, I have to say, so far the prediction’s been right. But not because of the book itself; because there’s been too much else to read. Below it on the pile there’s Graves’ White Goddess, also mentioned as a potential Book I Haven’t Read. I still haven’t read it. Further up, though, there’s a biography of Robert Graves, which I picked up on a bookstall outside the Watershed cinema. I thought: if I’m going to write about The White Goddess, I need to know more about him to do it justice. Coming across the biography by chance, I bought it. I started to read it. I still haven’t finished it.

Elsewhere in the house there are many more books I haven’t finished reading. Amazingly, though, yesterday, I finished one, and it was a book I only made a start on a few weeks ago.* Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre, by Ruth Scurr. A shy, fastidious man, who I find very intriguing; someone who found himself trying to impose morals by whatever means necessary, because his cause was justified. He was shortsighted both literally and figuratively, and was a logical man who became trapped in his own logic. He was willing to execute his oldest friends, because he thought his cause, the Revolution, was more important.

I’m not sure I read the book properly, because it left me feeling I’d stepped through a lacuna at one point: I wasn’t sure at all how he went from being the people’s leader, to giving a speech that he apparently could see was to try to save his own life. One thing I definitely learned about, though, was Robespierre’s inability to ever, at all, admit that he had been wrong, even after his stance had changed, or when condemning people he had earlier supported. I’m still not entirely sure whether, for that, he should be applauded, or condemned himself.

* Because it was a Christmas present from K’s brother.

Surprise sighting

In which, for the first time ever, a gruntlebeast is captured on camera

You might have noticed the little mascot of this site – up there in the top right, at the time of writing, although that might change given time. Really really long-time readers might remember me explaining what it was, back in the mists of time. It is called a gruntlebeast, and, because of the considerable lack of evidence for their existence, is often believed to be mythical, invisible, extinct, very very shy, or possibly any combination of those four things. You will, I’m sure, have noticed the distinct lack of sightings of gruntlebeasts mentioned in the news.

However: things have changed! The Symbolic Forest Militant Invective Laboratories have, after many years of trying,* apparently managed to capture footage of a gruntlebeast in the wild. Indeed, the footage seems to confirm the conjectured “partially invisible” hypothesis, and also possibly the beast’s legendary shyness. See what you think:

A possible rare sighting of a gruntlebeast on video

Apologies for the low quality; but, well, if it wasn’t low quality, it wouldn’t be a proper controversial mythical-creature sighting, would it? The next task: get some evidence for its famous “Arrg kxrrt!” hunting call.

* well, you saw how old that last blog post was